This blog is raw thought, a work in progress...
I have been thinking a lot lately about hat honor, oaths and thee/thouing.
All of these sticky points caused a great deal of trouble for early Quakers. Seventeenth century England, as I understand it, was loosely analogous in its hierarchy to the military today. Everybody had a place in the order of being and everyone did the equivalent of saluting and saying "sir" to one's superiors.
Quakers refused to do that. They would not take off their hats (or bow) to social superiors, and they would not address their superiors with the plural "you," instead insisting on addressing them with the commonplace, singular thee and thou. They would not swear oaths.
Last night, as I was reading Rosemary Moore's The Light in their Conscience, a book about the early Friends, I learned something new: in both hat honor and oath taking, the wealthy and powerful were often treated as above the law. Moore quotes Fox, writing in 1657, that "If a Lord of an Earl come into your courts, you will hardly fine him for putting off his hat ... but it is the poor that suffer." (120.) Likewise oaths. Not only were oaths forbidden in the Bible, they "could also be a form of social distinction, as oath-taking was rarely required of the gentry." (120)
This underscores the extent to which faith practices and social justice issues wove together for the early Quakers. The early Friends were not resisting these customs or laws merely out of principle, but both from principle (religious conviction) AND from solidarity with the poor and oppressed.
I imagine, however, that most, if not all, of the poor would take off their hats or swear oaths when commanded. What apparently galled the Quakers were that these customs reinforced the lowly status of the poor and the privilege of the rich-- this was not the way things should function in the Kingdom of God.
But shouldn't the Quakers have not "sweated the small stuff," as we now say? Aren't we always saying that? We say "just suck it up." We say, "just chill, dude." Should the early Quakers have " just sucked it up?" How hard is it, after all, simply to lift your hand and take your hat off your head? Isn't it as easy to say "you" as "thee?" To swear the oath? Was it worth going to jail for these gestures and potentially losing your property, your livelihood, and in some cases, your life? Shouldn't the Quakers have just chilled and picked more important battles?
Leaving aside that it's fairly clear they weren't "picking," but following the promptings of the spirit, the Light, Jesus Christ incarnate in their hearts, what about us? Do we suck it up too much, suppressing the Light that tells us to protest petty injustice? Do we decide it's "it's not worth it?" Do we rationalize--use reason--where God is asking us to act from the heart?
It's clear that the "small" gestures of the early Quakers--not taking off their hats, not theeing and thouing--sent tremors through the society disproportionate to the gestures themselves. They were powerful symbols of a new way of living. They were simple acts affirming human dignity that resonate with us to this day.
It seems to me that we are living in a society that has become more stratified, in which the rich are richer and the poor are poorer. The stakes are higher for the poor--and even the middle classes--who are more apt than ever to "suck up" petty indignities because the abyss looms so close. For the rich, the stakes are lower than ever--they can heap on the petty humiliations--not deliberately, but because they don't have to think-- with greater ease because, well, if person A doesn't like a situation, person B is waiting in line for the job. It is a society in which, paraphrasing Dorothy Day, it is becoming harder, not easier, to be good. Which perhaps makes it all the more incumbent on people of conscience to insist on the good.
It seems more clear to me than ever that--as the Spirit directs, let me emphasize, as the Spirit directs--we need to stand up to the small injustices. These function--as hat honor did--as the stand-ins for the bigger social injustices that sweep across our culture. One example (and I am groping here to be concrete) might be cashiers who have to stand all day--why can't they have stools? Well, we are told they are "lucky to have jobs." In the grand scheme of things is a stool such a big deal? No, but if we agree as Christians or Quakers that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, that we should do unto others ... shouldn't we raise some questions?
Or should we just chill out?